Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




June 26, 2008

I’ll be damned if I can figure out why Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums doesn’t appear to like question-and-answer sessions with the media. He is usually the brightest guy in the room and almost always well-prepared, with a better command of the details and a the implications of various policies and decisions than the people asking the questions. He’s a good listener—rarely misunderstanding the point of the question—and knows how to deflect away from uncomfortable places with humor, usually humor that is aimed at himself. More than once, I have seen the mayor charm what could have turned into a hostile crowd of citizens by standing and patiently answering questions, one by one. He does it regularly at citizen meetings, and he’s one of the best at the business that I’ve seen. He does it at press conferences as well, but it doesn’t seem to be something the mayor feels comfortable with. But at Tuesday afternoon’s Oakland Administrator Deborah Edgerly’s retirement announcing press conference, he ducked out of questions when he shouldn’t have, and when a couple of answered questions could have satisfied most of the reporters’ concerns.

Ms. Edgerly insisted specifically, and Mr. Dellums agreed by implication, that the announcement of the City Administrator’s long-planned retirement had nothing to do with the June 7 West Oakland auto towing incident. That left a simple but fundamental question: did the mayor complete his investigation into that incident, and what did he find? On his way out the door, the mayor told reporters that his actions—presumably keeping Ms. Edgerly on the job with full powers through her planned retirement in July—made the answer to that question “self-evident.” A better answer would have been “Yes, I conducted an investigation into the incident. I talked with all of the personnel involved and reviewed all of the reports forwarded to me by the Oakland Police Department. Based upon that investigation, there is no reason for me to take any further action in this matter. Unless and until further information is provided to me, this matter is closed.” As to any details about the incident or his investigation, the mayor could simply, and properly, have said that this was a personnel matter, and by law he was unable to say anything further about it.

And, in fact, details about Ms. Edgerly's status were later provided, not by the mayor, but selectively, by his Chief of Staff, David Chai. Long after the press conference was finished, Mr. Chai was seen chatting quietly with a handful of reporters in the City Hall downstairs lobby. KGO Radio's Greg Edmonds, on his way out the door to phone in his press conference story, asked Mr. Chai if he was giving out any more information about the Edgerly situation. Mr. Chai told him no. However, in its story on Ms. Edgerly's retirement filed online later that day, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that following the press conference that Ms. Edgerly "will have no authority over the Police Department, Dellums said later through a spokesman." I don't know if it was Mr. Chai who later made that statement to selected members of the press, but it would appear that someone on the Dellums staff did. That was pointedly different from what Ms. Edgerly said at the press conference—that she would retain "full powers" as City Administrator until her July 31 retirement—and meant that the Dellums administration recognized that there were, in fact, details that needed to be cleared up. But that should be done in front of the entire press corps, not selectively parceled out later on.

In any event, would a significant question-and-answer period at the press conference itself have fully satisfied the press at Tuesday’s press conference. Almost certainly not, in large part because—over the past several days since the revelation of the June 7 auto towing incident involving Ms. Edgerly—the media has been operating more like a mob than as a responsible body trying to uncover the facts and present them to the public. And the mob—like the crowds at the old Roman Coliseum—is only interested in blood and spectacle, and grows surly when neither is provided.

Let’s review, briefly, how our media friends have been covering this issue.

There are two bracketing incidents surrounding this situation. The last incident is that on June 17, Oakland police conducted a long-planned raid on West Oakland’s Acorn gang, arresting a total of 54 suspects on various charges, including a 27 year old nephew of Ms. Edgerly, William Lovan. The first incident was 10 days before, on June 7, when as part of the investigation of the Acorn gang that led up to the June 17 arrests, Oakland police were preparing to tow a vehicle from a West Oakland liquor store that had been driven by Lovan. Ms. Edgerly came on the scene and briefly intervened in that towing.

What exactly happened in the June 7 towing incident? In the Suspect Report released by the Oakland Police Department, police say that they received information—either from a confidential police informant or an undercover officer—that Lovan had gone into a liquor store leaving the vehicle running and the doors locked, and that he had also left a pistol in the vehicle. Police arrived at the liquor store preparing to tow the vehicle and seize the weapon, but said in their report that they could not tell Lovan the real reason for the tow because they did not want to reveal the source of their information about the weapon—the confidential informant or undercover police officer—and therefore possibly blow the months-long gang investigation. According to the report, Ms. Edgerly arrived on the scene—the report is silent on whether she was called there by her nephew or simply was in the area—and asked the officers why they were towing her nephew’s vehicle. When they, admittedly, could not give her a satisfactory answer, Ms. Edgerly began placing calls to their superiors. According to the report, one of the officers referred Ms. Edgerly to his sergeant, who had arrived on the scene. After that, Ms. Edgerly disappears from the report, the vehicle was towed, and the weapon was seized by Oakland police.

If any of this had been written up by the media on June 7 or 8, it would have been a non-story, since nothing in the OPD Suspect Report indicates that Ms. Edgerly knew about the weapon in the vehicle, or that she attempted to prevent officers from towing the vehicle. The administrator simply asked why the vehicle was being towed and—from all the evidence we can glean from the police report—did nothing further once she received an answer from the supervising sergeant. This in itself hardly amounts to “interference” in police matters, and Ms. Edgerly’s reported actions amount to nothing more than any other parent or relative might have or would have done under the circumstances.

The incident was magnified by the marvelous power of hindsight, however, after it was learned that the June 7 towing incident was related to the widely-publicized Acorn gang arrests that occurred 10 days later.

With that hindsight, see how our media friends characterized that earlier incident. “A spokesman for Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said Thursday that the mayor is looking into what he described as ‘serious allegations’ that City Administrator Deborah Edgerly may have interfered with a police investigation into the Acorn drug gang” CBS5 news reported on Thursday of last week. “The city's highest-ranking nonelected official will no longer have a job come Monday, because of what police say were her attempts to protect an alleged member of the gang,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson wrote last Friday. “Edgerly is under fire for possibly interfering with a Police Department investigation of a suspected gang member and city employee whom she said is her nephew,” the Oakland Tribune wrote on Saturday. And on Monday, the Chronicle was reporting that “Oakland City Administrator Deborah Edgerly's fate was up in the air Monday while the city probes police reports that she tried to aid a relative caught in the police sweep of alleged members of a violent gang.”

All of these reports are based upon an inference that Ms. Edgerly may have known about the Acorn gang investigation in advance, and went to the aid of her nephew, thus possibly jeapordizing the investigation and later busts.

But there has never been any publicly-presented evidence that Ms. Edgerly had information in advance about the Acorn investigation (named Operation Nutcracker). And if her purpose was to protect her nephew, she certainly went about in the most ham-handed of ways. Ten days after the June 7 towing incident, Mr. Lovan, her nephew, was one of the persons arrested in the police bust. If Ms. Edgerly knew about the investigation and the arrests in advance, did she tip Mr. Lovan off? And if Mr. Lovan was tipped off, why did he remain in Oakland, to be arrested? On the surface, at least, an Edgerly interference in the Acorn investigation—as alleged in the media—doesn’t appear to make sense.

Give our media friends points for trying to make it fit, however. On Wednesday, in a column entitled “Edgerly's nephew alerted gang members to impending police raid,” the Chronicle’s Phil Matier and Andrew Ross wrote that according to their sources, who the columnists describe as “familiar with the case,” “police think Edgerly may have made a call to her nephew, warning him to stay away from these ‘bad people’ because the authorities knew what they were up to. Authorities say the gang was linked to several homicides and a series of restaurant takeover robberies as well as carjackings, drug and weapons trafficking. … Police, who had several suspects' phones tapped, say they have the nephew on tape calling the gang's alleged leader and telling him that he had word ‘from the top’ that the cops were on the way. ‘Either we were fast and lucky or they were just too slow and dumb," said one source close to the case, because police still managed to pull off the bust. Fifty-six people were arrested on drugs and gun charges. Edgerly herself does not show up on any wiretaps, our sources say, but when the police pulled in Lovan, he allegedly admitted—on videotape—that his aunt had called him.”

Timing and knowledge is everything in making a connection between Ms. Edgerly and the June 17 Operation Nutcracker arrests, but problem in Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross’ conclusions in Wednesday’s column is with their habitual sloppiness in writing. When did Mr. Lovan—Ms. Edgerly’s nephew—tell the gang leader that the “cops were on the way”? Was it immediately prior to the June 17 arrests, indicating that someone had tipped him off to those arrests? And did Mr. Lovan admit—in his videotaped session with Oakland police—that the call to him from Ms. Edgerly involved the “cops were on their way” warning? Mr. Ross and Mr. Matier fail to provide us with those necessary tying-together details. If Ms. Edgerly informed Mr. Lovan of a pending police bust immediately prior to the June 17 arrests, she is guilty of a criminal offense. If not, she may be guilty only of trying to keep her nephew away from bad influences. For Mr. Ross and Mr. Matier to include this innuendo—without the accompanying details that only they have access to through their confidential sources, and that would allow us to properly judge their implied conclusion that Ms. Edgerly aided her nephew in tipping off the Acorn gang about the pending police bust—is close to a criminal act in itself, a trial and conviction by innuendo, rather than by presentation of fact.

“By Tuesday,” Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross wrote in Wednesday’s column, Mr. Dellums was “apparently seeing [Ms. Edgerly] as the underdog who was being attacked, our sources tell us.” Can anyone wonder why?

Because the information is still so sketchy about the June 7 auto towing incident and its aftermath, we can’t draw any conclusion about Ms. Edgerly’s actions on that day, or afterwards, only that no evidence has yet surfaced of wrongdoing on her part, only innuendo. However, two conclusions jump out. Mr. Dellums should stay and answer questions from local reporters, always. That’s his responsibility, regardless of how irresponsible the media may or may not be. However, the mayor’s failure to answer questions doesn’t excuse local reporters and columnists from our failure to ask more questions from more sources before running down the street, mob-like, with already-formed conclusions of our own.

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